Monday, August 09, 2010

The "Western understanding"

I haven't read the NYT op-ed pages thoroughly for ages, and I'm reminded of why. As soon as I saw Ross Douthat's first few paragraphs explaining why the usual arguments against gay marriage don't hold up, I knew both that he was about to launch what would be the Big New Idea (but really an Old Catholic Idea) about marriage, but also that we were at a very specific moment in the op-ed formula. The moment when the conservative addressing a liberal audience plays at being swayable, wishy-washy, one-of-the-good-ones. Rare is the op-ed read to completion, so many NYT readers will go about their Mondays thinking Ross Douthat is on their side.

Then, once 99.99% of readers have set aside their coffee or emerged from the subway or been called away from by their work, he morphs into Bonald (see also), referring to multiple relationships over the course of a lifetime as "polygamy" and to the hetero nuclear family as a microcosm of society, and citing Judeo-Christian tradition (and may I say on behalf of the Jews, or at least some of us: don't drag us into this!).

And then, most frustratingly of all, he makes the very same error one sees in just about all defenses of "traditional marriage," namely implying (though never stating outright) that there was a Golden Age of lifelong heterosexual monogamous commitment. What about men, who were always permitted pre- and extramarital dalliances? What about the not-so-chaste women necessary for this arrangement?

The "Western understanding" Douthat laments describes was never much observed but at most an aspiration, at least something that one would say one wanted when asked about this publicly. And the ideal that's replaced it? People still aspire to lifelong commitments and child-rearing. The only difference is that there's a greater honesty about both the fact that people don't arrive as virgins at marriage (at 22 let alone 35), and that, for a small but significant part of the population, the only monogamous attachment possible of being honored is with a member of the same sex.

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